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Work / Chopin's offers for Europe

Chopin's offers for Europe


1. Rejection of the Classical heritage

2. Original musical style

3. Deeper understanding of national musical art



1. Rejection of the Classical heritage

We are eager to term Chopin a ‘classic' in the wide meaning of the term. Yet leaving Warsaw, Chopin rejected the heritage of musical Classicism he had absorbed through the tuition of Józef Elsner during the three years of his composition studies at the Main School of Music of the Royal University of Warsaw. That influence manifested itself in Chopin's use of Classical genres for piano and orchestra: in the Variations on Mozart's ‘Là ci darem la mano' for piano and orchestra Op. 2, Rondo à la Krakowiak Op. 14, Fantasy on Polish Airs in A major for piano and orchestra Op. 13 and the two piano concertos, as well as the Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 4 and the Piano Trio in G minor Op. 8. These works, the largest in dimension of all Chopin's output, were composed in Warsaw; later, Chopin never returned to large genres for piano and orchestra or to chamber music (with the single exception of the Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 65). He opened his Paris period of composition with small instrumental genres that during his Warsaw period, constituted a sort of seconda prattica and which Elsner, Chopin's highest music authority, frowned upon. For the young composer, this gesture of rejection was suggestively symbolic. By detaching himself with the generic heritage of Classical music, Chopin not only failed to bring to Europe what the Warsaw musical milieu expected of him, but he went further in embracing the stile brillante so fashionable in the 1830s. The Rondo in E flat major Op. 16, Waltz in G flat major WN 42, Boléro Op. 19, Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor WN 46 and several variations cycles are examples of Chopin works composed in this style; incidentally, they belong to the weaker productions of his output. Yet these works were necessary to gather the attention of the Parisian public (which Chopin didn't hold in high esteem, by the way). It was, therefore, a case of sheer artistic strategy and not of artistic freedom. The composer's letters make it clear: "It has nothing but glitter for the salon, for the ladies", he wrote about his Introduction and Polonaise in C major Op. 3 [KCh I: 112]. Chopin's first offers for the music capital of the world marked the bottom artistic threshold for his later, mature works.

In the early 1830s, the tension between the horizon of expectations the Polish community nourished in Chopin and his subjective creativity was already fully evident. We do not know what Chopin answered Elsner when the latter reminded him of a quotation from the German music theorist and teacher, Christian Urban, in autumn 1834: "Ein Thonstück auf dem Clavier [...] verhält sich gegen ein solches für Gesang, oder andere Instrumente wie ein Kupferstich zu dem Gemälde [A piano piece bears the same relation to a vocal work or one for other instruments as a engraving to a painting on canvas]. This is very true, Elsner continues, although some piano works - especially your own ones when you perform them - can be considered illuminated engravings" [KCh I: 246]. Although Elsner softened his criticism by acknowledging the value of Chopin's piano music, it must have been clear for the latter that the above quotation was meant as a consolation. As late as 1840, when Chopin's European fame was well consolidated, Elsner planned a meeting with his former student in Paris and wrote: "I will share some thoughts with you on music in general, and on the oratorio and the opera in specific" [KCh II: 6]. Chopin's sister Ludwika referred a Warsaw gossip in autumn 1842 that is extremely telling of the hopes of the local music milieu: "[...] They are talking that you will doubtlessly write something soon with Adam [Mickiewicz, Poland's leading poet of the time]" [KCh II: 72]. Such talk consistently irritated Chopin, who wrote to Fontana in the summer of 1839: "Woyciechowski wrote to me that I should compose an oratorio. [...] I answered asking why he is establishing a sugar factory and not a monastery for Camaldolese or Dominican nuns" [KCh I: 354-5].


2. Original musical style

The importance of Chopin's heritage for Europe was demonstrated as soon as the second half of the 19th century through the reception of his music, not so much in the social sense (although he has always been the most published, performed and recorded composer in music history) but in the artistic one. In the late 19th century, editors of his complete works included musicians such as Johannes Brahms and Claude Debussy: their diversity confirms the universal character of Chopin's aesthetic code. Yet the key features of Chopin's musical language only developed in the late 1830s.

In the field of harmony and tonality, Chopin was undoubtedly the greatest innovator of the second Romantic generation. The use of the ‘Tristan chord' several decades before Wagner, Chopin's free (essential) chromaticism, the extension of the tonal system's boundaries: these elements prepared the ground for the later experiments of Liszt and Wagner. Moreover, Chopin used a hitherto unknown kind of fluid tonality, later described by Arnold Schoenberg in his Harmonielehre of 1911 as a "schwebende und aufgehobene Tonalität". In their compositional technique, some Chopin works broke all the rules of Classical tonality: the Prelude in A minor did so in its emancipation of dissonance, that E minor in its expansion of free chromaticism, while the Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 45 in destabilising its tonal centre [Gołąb 1991].  

These new developments in the field of musical chronotope generated some sharp controversies among Chopin's contemporaries. The Polish poet Juliusz Słowacki, who eventually denied Chopin's music any sense of the sublime, had a markedly ambiguous attitude towards Chopin. Although in 1832 he wrote in a letter to his mother about an evening at Straszewicz's: "We were cruelly bored until 10 o'clock in the evening, but then Chopin got drunk and improvised beautiful things on the piano [...]" [KCh I: 217], but 13 years later he wrote again to his mother in Krzemieniec (the letter was eventually not sent) about Chopin "nerve-wretching music [which irritates] all the nerves with its semitones and dissonances. [...] Have you ever seen anyone becoming better, prettier, more gracious or heroic after listening to Chopin's music?" [KCh II: 126-7].

Interestingly, the elements criticised by Słowacki were seen by the leading musicians of that generation as the essence of Chopin's personal style. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy wrote to Fanny Hensel: "It was a delight to deal again with a true musician, not a half-virtuoso or half-classic who would wish music to combine the majesty of virtue with the voluptuousness of sin; but a musician who has his own undiscovered path" [KCh I: 264]. It is easy to believe that Słowacki was blind to the heroic traits of Chopin's music but not that he failed to notice the individual character of his musical aesthetics.

Chopin's new stylistic offer also consisted in his original musical syntax and, in consequence, his style of musical narrative. These elements were fully disclosed only in the second half of the 20th century, in the era of the new urtext editions where Chopin's final versions, unmitigated by editorial interventions, were finally made available to the public. William Rothstein showed how the Nocturne in F sharp minor Op. 48 No. 2 introduced a new, expanded musical phrase spanning no less than 23 bars [Rothstein 1988: 134-5]. In the field of musical syntax and phrasing, this was such a great novelty, totally breaking with the Classical tradition, that even deep into the 20th century many editors ‘sliced up' this phrase in good faith to adapt to the principles of symmetrical musical form. Chopin new ‘open phrase' was a sharp reaction to the Classical ‘four-bar phrase tyranny', and contributed, together with Wagner's later ‘endless melody', to the development of a new style of musical narrative in the times of Mahler and Karłowicz, with their ‘telescoped' themes and the technique of a continuous ‘shattering' of motives. Here again, Chopin's music syntax, as much as it broke with Classical norms [see Witkowska-Zaremba 1993], did not shock e.g. Schumann, who wrote thus to Heinrich Dorn: "[Chopin] played many etudes, mazurkas and nocturnes for me; it was all unequalled. [...] Imagine a finite perfection, a mastery that seems to be unaware of its own value" [KCh I: 286].  

Chopin's offer in the field of musical composition, finally, was his often emphasised sensivity to the sonoristic aspect of musical composition (sound colour): the so-called purely sonoristic function of harmony [Lissa 1970; Benedetto 1984], or the sensual aspect of sound, which he often discussed with Delacroix in Nohant. In the late 1840s, Delacroix worked on his theory of complementary colours and simultaneous contrast; Paul Signac saw this work by Delacroix as a direct antecedence of the Impressionists [Eigeldinger 1997]. Delacroix wrote to George Sand: "We have neverending discussions with Chopin, [...] who is an extraordinary man. He is the truest artist I've met in my life. He belongs to those rare people that can be admired and revered" [KCh II: 65]. While those discussions never pushed Chopin to take an interest in syncretic art (as developed later by Alexander Scriabin), Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger demonstrated that "Chopin was in full agreement with Delacroix' opinion on painting technique" [Eigeldinger 1997: 124].

Numerous musicological studies have considered Chopin as a predecessor, through some peculiarities of his piano writing, of Debussy and musical Impressionism; some later works such as the Berceuse Op. 57 and the Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 45 seem to initiate the esoteric quest for that elusive blue note which a London reviewer, after Chopin's concert on 8th July 1848, so poignantly described as "a mysterious soothing, like moonlight" [ibid.: 123].

The last level of Chopin's innovation during his Paris period is related to the highly normative genres he inherited from the Classical era. These innovations go back to Chopin's university studies. His early formal experiments were often seen by some researchers as deficiencies in his academic education. "They evidently did not have clear ideas about sonatas out there in Warsaw", Charles Rosen writes in his monograph of the sonata genre [Rosen 1988: 392]. Even Ludwik Bronarski, one of the leading experts of Chopin's music, wrote of the "incorrect recapitulations" in his sonatas [Bronarski 1935]. In reality, in Chopin's creative process, particularly in the 1840s, the generic identity of a work was always subordinated to narrative and expression. Consequently, Chopin was one of the few composers of his generation to submit the Classical genres to the thorough modifications that are widely discussed in the scholarly literature. This process is particularly visible in those genres which Chopin used throughout his life: sonatas, nocturnes, polonaises, mazurkas, ballades and scherzos. It was a move from a relative formal simplicity and genre identity to freely composed generic hybrids that contributed to the twilight, in the following Romantic generations, of the faith in the regulative power of Classical musical forms.


3. Deeper understanding of national musical art

The stereotype of Chopin's "elevating folklore to humanity" is one of the most deeply rooted in Chopin studies. Several generations of scholars up to the times of Socialist realism have perpetrated the premise of direct folk inspirations of Chopin's music, completely ignoring the fact that instrumental Polish dances belonged musical ‘high art' since the Renaissance, and were composed not only by Polish composers. The cult of ‘pure' folk music in its unadulterated form emerged as late as the times of Bartók. Chopin had a typically aristocratic attitude towards folk music, and it would be futile to search his letters for traces of direct inspirations. For Chopin, folk and artistic music were two distinct worlds. "I didn't feel like dressing up for dinner, so I played the entire evening at my place, and hummed some songs from the Vistula", he wrote to his family before Easter 1847 [KCh II: 194]. And that one was one thing.

Composing stylised Polish dances was an entiry different issue, however, on which Chopin has a very clear position. When he received some patriotic songs by Stefani to give his opinion, he wrote in the same letter, somewhat patronisingly: "If you ever meet Stefani up there, say my thanks, as well as to Kolberg for his hard labour [i.e., the Songs of the Polish People published by Oskar Kolberg with added piano accompaniment, Poznań 1842 - Author's note]" [KCh II: 196]. Apparently, 19th-century music folklorism (authentic folk melodies with added accompaniment) was synonimous, for Chopin, with the world of musical ‘labour'. Already in Chopin's earliest Polish dances, the music is qualitatively different: they are stylised dances, not direct quotations from actual folklore. The stylised Polish dance genre in Chopin's output from the 1830s and especially the 1840 becomes one of such refined sublimation that is detaches itself almost entirely from its folk inspirations. Chopin's late mazurkas and polonaises for piano are no more simple stylised dances but piano poems of epic élan (Mazurkas Opp. 56, 59 and 63, Polonaise-Fantaisie Op. 61).

Chopin letters hint at his violent reaction towards the public discussion surrounding his role as a representative of ‘national music'. One letter (usually ignored by biographers) makes Chopin's attitude towards musical folklore clear. On 8th August 1839, Chopin wrote to Fontana, thanking him for handing over a letter from Poland with the following content:

My Darling! Thank you for that letter addressed to Mr. Chopine. It is headed: "Wiatrowo near W[ą]growiec", and ends thus: to You, as a great Master of Musick and Composition, Alexander Moszczeński, sheriff of Brześć. Inside: "As an amateur of music of 80 years, being in the possession of two hundred-year-old mazurkas, I beg you to compose variations on them". The mazurkas are, as you can imagine, eminent: ram didiridi, ram didiridi, ram didiridi, raee-da. [...] A brave old Old Polish olde sheriff, from those that go back a long time. [KCh I: 353].

That ungracious irony sprang from the fact that Chopin did not, as is often though, "elevate the folklore to humanity", but practiced a genre of high art that was equally familiar in 19th-century Petersburg, Warsaw, Berlin and Paris. The issue is of course relevant, but runs deeper into the domain of ‘national spirit', which, as we know, was already a matter of debate in the times of Johann Gottfried Herder and Hippolite Taine. Unlike elements of musical language that can be easily grasped by comparative analysis, Chopin's musical poetics and their national ingredient are much more difficult to analyse. Deeper elements of the Polish ethnicity in Chopin's music include the so-called Polish cadence, based on the melody of the Polish language, which is present both in numerous Chopin's works and in Polish national songs [Bilica 1997]. We know that Elsner addressed the issue of expressive paroxytonesis as early as 1818 in his work Rozprawa o metryczności i rytmiczności języka polskiego [Dissertation on the metre and rhythm of the Polish language] where he formulated the ‘penultima law'. He wrote, "The form of a language is the premise of the penultima law, and cannot by any means be damaged, as it is through this premise that the Polish tongue belongs to Slavic languages" [1818: n.pag.]. Interestingly, many examples of the so-called Polish cadence can be found not only in Chopin's vocal output (composed to poems by Polish authors) but also in his instrumental one. In Chopin's works, Krzysztof Bilica sustains, some influences of the Polish language (understood as a system of emphasis) can be found, "namely direct influences of the language in the songs, indirect influences in works based on songs or including reminiscences of them, and only partly, an echo of these influences in the composer's instrumental output" [Bilica 1997: 34].      

The use of an old rhetorical-musical figure called imaginatio crucis recently observed by researchers in Chopin's last works is another example of a deeper element of national music. This figure consists of a four-note image of the lying cross, figuratively represented by signs of musical notation. This traditional figure, used intentionally by Bach and obviously perceptive aurally to his contemporaries, underwent a transformation in Chopin's Polonaise in F sharp minor Op. 44 [Jasiński 1995: 51-73]. If we agree that traditional musical topics function in undisclosed ways, and if we presume that the soteriological ‘cross motive' may also appear in instrumental musical as an aesthetically significant element (figure of the cross at the beginning or end of the piece), then its presence in the fatally ill Chopin's last song acquires a special significance. This masterly song, Melodia [Melody], was composed to a short excerpt of Zygmunt Krasiński poem Ostatni [The Last One] of 1847. The text used by Chopin is a seven-verse motto from Krasiński's poem, speaking of the experience of a conspirator, Polish patriot, imprisoned in kazamats in deep Russia for his conspirational activities [Gołąb 2003: 213-222]. The text of the song is the following:


Z gór, gdzie dźwigali strasznych krzyżów brzemię    [From mountains, where they carried the terrible burden of crosses,

Widzieli z dala obiecaną ziemię -                           They saw from a distance the promised land -

Widzieli światło niebieskich promieni,                     They saw the light of blue rays,

Ku którym, w dole, ciągnęło ich plemię.                 To which, in the valley, their tribe was aiming.

A sami do tych nie wejdą przestrzeni,                    And they would not reach this space,

Do godów życia nigdy nie zasiędą                          Would never sit to life's merriness,

I może nawet - zapomnieni będą!                          And perhaps even - will be forgotten!]

Imaginatio crucis appears continuously in this masterly work's pivotal moments: not only in the initial and final accompaniment figure, but most significantly in bar 44: it is hard to resist a symbolic association with this number*, just as for the opus number of the Polonaise in F sharp minor. Is the crude appearance of the musical image of the cross in bar ‘forty-four' a conscious ‘encoding' of cross symbolism? There is no unambiguous answer, although the messianic aura of Krasiński's The Last One would encourage such reading. The ideas of Polish messianism, encoded (‘conspired') in this song, were drawn from Mickiewicz's Dziady [The Forefathers' Eve] and Krasiński's Ostatni, two works well familiar to Chopin; they were particularly vivid in the circles of the Polish ‘Great Emigration' of the 1840s, when both Ostatni and Chopin's Melody, so imbued with the presage of death, were composed.

The messianic hint in the semantic and symbolic aspect of Melody is in part deductive, but it is substantiated by contextual evidence. The paths of many Polish émigrés crossed in Chopin's house. Chopin himself wrote to Adolf Cichowski around 1844: "Please, do pop in at my place before the isle" [KCh II: 119], and later to the same addressee: "My Dear, if you may, before Hôtel Lambert do come to me, I'd like to tell you something but cannot move" [KCh II: 123]. In a letter to Stefan Witwicki of 23rd March 1845, Chopin comments on Mickiewicz's lectures at the Collège de France having been discontinued. He also distances himself from Towiański, when writing about Mickiewicz losing his allegiances: "A sad thing: 2 of them (including, apparently, [Seweryn] Pilichowski] had a notarial act made, declaring their allegiance, almost serfdom to Towiański: they obliged themselves for the remainder of their lives. Can there be greater madness! - Mick[iewicz] is not with Tow[iański], as formerly. The latter claims they've overdone, and gone too far. In a word, there is discord - and so we will likely have a sad end soon" [KCh II: 130].

Maciej Gołąb
English translation: Wojciech Bońkowski


* ‘Forty and four' is a famously prophetic number in leading Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz's drama Dziady [Forefathers' Eve] III, 5:59ff. The number, which scholars have variously but never conclusively interpreted, denotes a mysterious forthcoming saviour of Poland and humanity. A reference to 44 is clear to any Polish reader and listener. (Note of the translator).



Benedetto Daniela di La funzione timbrica dell'armonia nelle composizioni di Chopin, "Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana" 1984 no. 2.

Bilica Krzysztof Melos polski u Chopina [The Polish melos in Chopin's work], "Muzyka" 1997 no. 4.

Bronarski Ludwik Harmonika Chopina [The Harmony of Chopin], Warszawa 1935.

Gołąb Maciej Chromatyka i tonalność w muzyce Chopina [Chromaticism and Tonality in Chopin's Music], Kraków 1991; German translation by Beatrysa Hirszenberg Chopins Harmonik. Chromatik in ihrer Beziehung zur Tonalität, Köln 1995.

-- Fryderyka Chopina propozycje dla Europy [Chopin's offers for Europe], [in:] Romantycy i Europa. Marzenia, doświadczenia, propozycje [The Romantics and Europe. Dreams, Experiences, Offers], ed. Marta Piwińska, Warszawa 2006 [full version of the present essay].

-- Musical Work Analysis. An Epistemological Debate, translated by Wojciech Bońkowski, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien 2008 [original Polish edition: Spór o granice poznania dzieła muzycznego, Wrocław 2003].

Eigeldinger Jean-Jacques Chopin and ‘la note bleue': An interpretation of the Prelude Op. 45, "Music and Letters" 78 (1997) no. 2.

Elsner Józef Rozprawa o metryczności i rytmiczności języka polskiego, szczególnie o wierszach polskich we względzie muzycznym [...] [Dissertation on the metre and rhythm of the Polish language, particularly on Polish poetry in the musical aspect], Warszawa: S. Dąbrowski 1818.

Jasiński Tomasz ‘Imaginatio crucis' in the Baroque Music, "Musica Iagellonica" I (1995).

Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina [The Letters of Fryderyk Chopin], compiled and ed. Bronisław E. Sydow, vols. 1-2, Warszawa 1955 [abridged to KCh in the text above].

Lissa Zofia Harmonika Chopina z perspektywy techniki dźwiękowej XX wieku [Chopin's harmony from the point of view of 20th-century sound technique], [in:] Studia nad twórczością Fryderyka Chopina [Studies on the Work of Fryderyk Chopin], Kraków 1970.

Rosen Charles Sonata Forms, New York-London 1988.

Rothstein William Phrase rhythm in Chopin's Nocturnes and Mazurkas, [in:] Jim Samson (ed.), Chopin Studies, Cambridge 1988.

Witkowska-Zaremba Elżbieta Wersyfikacja, składnia i forma w mazurkach Chopina [Versification, syntax and form in Chopin's Mazurkas], [in:] Maciej Gołąb (ed.) Przemiany stylu Chopina [Changes of Chopin's Style], Kraków 1993; English translation in "Polish Music Journal", http://www.usc.edu/dept/polish_music/PMJ/issue/3.1.00/contents.html



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